With no set timeline in place for a reinvestigation of the A Wing of the Brewster Building on East Carolina University's campus as of Sept. 7, students and faculty believe there is a lack of transparency among administration and the community as they await updates.
Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Safety and Auxiliary Services William Koch said in an email statement Director of ECU Prospective Health Paul Barry, who is the head of the case study analysis of severe illnesses among faculty within Brewster, and Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) with facilities services held an initial meeting with CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on Aug. 24. During this meeting, a discussion around the building’s health hazard evaluation conducted in 2019 took place.
At the request of the NIOSH team, additional information was provided preceding the meeting on Aug. 24, which includes building drawings, maintenance records as well as housekeeping and pest control chemical information, according to Koch. This information resulted in the decision to follow a two-track process by NIOSH to investigate Brewster.
“Their (NIOSH) occupational safety team will work with our EH&S office and facilities services to assess the Brewster Building, while their medical team will work with Barry and our medical team to assess the cases,” Koch said.
The two-track processes conducted by NIOSH will involve a full assessment of the building and the case study analysis led by Barry. Koch said because the case analysis contains the use of medical records, this track process will keep those records with medical experts who can best utilize them and maintain confidentiality.
Additionally, the university has provided North Carolina Department of Human Health and Safety (NCDHHS) representatives with an unnamed public health physician and certified industrial hygienist to assist in the investigation. Koch said a tour of the Brewster Building also took place on Aug. 26, which resulted in no building-related health concerns as of Sept. 1.
As NIOSH is the lead for the assessment of Brewster, Koch said the university continues to work with the team to develop a timeline of when the assessment will take place and reach completion as of Sept. 7. He said the case study analysis does not have a set timeline either, due to the need for an in-depth investigation.
“NIOSH is leading the assessment effort so we (EH&S and facilities services) are working with them on their timeline. We are told that case assessments can require considerable research and time,” Koch said.
President of the ECU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and professor in the history department Karin Zipf said as of Sept. 7 four new pancreatic cancer diagnoses within the building have been identified, which results in nine cases total and eight deaths total from pancreatic cancer.
Zipf said she does everything she can to stay out of the building, to the extent of meeting students at Coastal Fog, a local coffee shop, instead of her office in the A Wing. She said she refuses to go inside the building unless she must. She said she only enters the building to retrieve mail, update her computer or talk to colleagues.
The administration’s response to the concerns expressed by the Pirate community about Brewster only serves as a performative response rather than what is needed to address student, faculty and staff concerns, according to Zipf.
“I think the administration has taken a very good proforma response and is moving in a proforma manner. I am not sure a purely proforma response is enough to assuage people’s concerns,” Zipf said.
Besides the avoidance of the building itself, Zipf said she continues to avoid drinking or using any water that is inside Brewster. Due to the men’s bathroom sink being the only water faucets in the building that were tested in the 2019 assessment, she said she will wait until the new results are released before she begins to use the water again.
For the sake of the faculty within the building, Zipf said she would like for the university to work with the Brody School of Medicine to assist in informing faculty what steps they should take if they believe they are showing signs of pancreatic cancer, however, she has not received a response to her request.
“I have begged, I have begged, I begged at Brody and I begged with Bill Koch, I have asked for some kind of pamphlet or guidance of what to ask your doctor, I have asked for some kind of PowerPoint that can tell you about what pancreatic cancer is and how to know if you have it...we have the resources at Brody to address medical guidance,” Zipf said.
Junior biology major Emily Yates said she originally discovered her concern around the Brewster Building once she began to hear talk around the investigation on campus and viewing content on The East Carolinian. She said she, as well as most of her friends on campus, also have a few classes inside the building this semester.
Yates said she was unaware of most of the hazards involved with the Brewster Building, such as cement previously falling on top of students, until she discovered online articles on the topic. She said she does not believe university administration has been transparent enough with students on information about Brewster as well as the status of the situation as a whole.
On Aug. 19, Barry and Koch sent an email to the ECU community at the request of Chancellor Philip Rogers to provide an update on steps the university will take for further assessment of the building and inform students of the inspection from 2019.Yates said she does not remember viewing this email in her inbox, though she must have missed it when it was sent.
“I do not think they (university administration) have done a good enough job, I mean I know they still have classes in there and they are still letting their staff in there so you can send out an email...I mean personally, I don’t know if I have missed some kind of announcement or something, but the only things I have heard about Brewster is by word of mouth or The East Carolinian,” Yates said.
Senior family community services major Annagrace Saufley created a petition on change.org addressed to the university and Rogers to remove students and faculty from the building for the academic year. She said she initially created the petition in hopes the administration would do more to address the situation.
“Oh, they (university administration) could do more. They could 100% do more. What my petition was originally for was, I wasn’t calling for like ‘let’s knock down the Brewster Building, let's blow it up get rid of it’ you know, what I wanted was for them to move classes and other activities like testing from that building through the remainder of the year,” Saufley said.
Saufley said because ECU has held courses online before, she knows they have the capability of providing this option for students and faculty within the building. However, she said the case of working to relocate classes to other locations on campus may be the better alternative.
As she has had a class before that originally began in Austin Building that was then relocated to Rivers Building, Saufley said she feels since she has experienced this before with one course, this option could be conducted through logistical planning efforts for courses held in Brewster as well.
Saufley said although it may seem like students do not have much to worry about when it comes to the length of exposure inside the building due to short class periods, professors are the main line of concern here. She said due to professors spending several hours inside their offices, their risk is greater, however, any amount of exposure should raise concern.
“That was my issue when they (university administration) kept saying like ‘well these are only tied to the A Wing and the A Wing is only offices so like students have nothing to worry about because all their classes are in B and C Wing’ and it's like sure, but I think we are just talking about the length of exposure here first of all, just because we are in there less doesn’t mean it’s not harmful,” Saufley said.
As of Sept. 7, there is no evidence of building-related health concerns discovered by NIOSH.